Before I met my current partner (the one I plan on sticking with as long as he’ll put up with me), I had a habit of choosing toxic relationships. I gravitated toward men who frequently questioned my worth, put me down, and overall positioned me as the inferior in the relationship instead of looking at me like an equal. I remember one in particular who often talked about being his office’s “golden boy” and who questioned my decision to add a second major in college because “it would be a lot of work, you know” (Spoiler alert: I graduated in the top 7% of my class at a major university with two majors, one major specialization, and a minor. I also had the most honor cords of anyone in my college).
A little while before I met Boyfriend, I made a list of things I was looking for in a partner. I was fortunate to realize the toxicity of the relationships I had up until then been seeking out, and decided to devote some time to work on the self esteem issues I’d collected over the years. Before I entered into another relationship, I decided I would make sure the person I chose matched up with the qualities I was looking for — qualities like compassion, humility, confidence, and supportiveness. Most importantly, I wanted to find someone who would treat me as an equal partner instead of a subordinate “other half.” Though it’s not the focus of this post, I would like to report that Boyfriend has every single thing I wrote down on that list.
Because of my previous experiences in romantic relationships, I got really good at recognizing the red flags of emotional manipulation and abuse (whether or not I listened to them, however, was another matter). Especially in the nascent stages of an unhealthy situation, recognizing red flags and acting is a critical step in minimizing the damages of abuse and removing yourself from the situation. Much like my previous approach to romantic relationships, it has been easy for me to assume my insights are less valid in a professional setting, which has in turn made it hard for me to stand up for my worth when it is questioned or voice my needs when they aren’t being met.
I’ve talked before about my struggles with impostor syndrome. Especially among my female peers, I notice that almost everyone struggles with the feeling that they’re a fraud waiting to be “found out” from time to time. I don’t know if it’s just my personality or my experiences (probably a bit of both), but “waiting to be found out” is basically a constant state of being for me. Even when presented with empirical evidence of competency, it’s difficult for me to internalize my successes and feel confident in my work. This is how I have been for most of my life. I remember really struggling in a previous work environment, in part because there was minimal positive reinforcement, feedback, guidelines, or mentorship — if something was wrong it was wrong and don’t worry about it I’ll just fix it myself. I struggled to voice my needs and concerns as they arose, which led to a continued erosion of my sense of self worth and my ability to do my job at the level I knew I was capable of.
Lack of clarity and the consistent questioning of whether I could even do things like write, edit, or plan adequately made it basically impossible for me to utilize the skills I knew I had. In a self-evaluation, I wrote a note about wanting to be more confident in my approach to projects and tasks, and I was told that confidence would come when the work was there. And the work, apparently, just wasn’t there. I remember being frustrated and hurt because I didn’t feel I was given the chance to understand what was expected of me so I could try at all. Sometimes, I would probably fail on the first try and maybe even the second. If I was able to engage in dialogue about what was working and what wasn’t, I might be able to modify my approach and leverage my skills to produce something that met its intended goals. I felt like I was thrown into the jungle without a map, and then chastised for not knowing where I was going.
Having space from a situation that is thankfully behind me, I have been able to recognize many of the tactics that were present in past romantic relationships — things I may have noticed if I’d been looking for them. If I had been able to identify some of the behaviors that resulted in such a negative situation for me, I may have been able to modify my own approach to be more effective in my position (or, I may have been able to exit the situation more quickly). I’m actually incredibly grateful for the experience because it helped me realize what I find most valuable when seeking future professional environments.
Honest dialogue and feedback.
As a writer, I have spent most of my time in workshop environments dedicated to making writing stronger. I love feedback. I live for feedback. It’s critical to know what you’re doing well on a project and, more importantly, what you can be doing better. Feedback is probably the most critical component of any project because it’s through feedback that you are introduced to new perspectives and insights. No one can work in a silo (well, no one can work well in a silo). If something’s not working, that is totally fine — but don’t just tell me that it’s bad and you’ll do it yourself. Give me suggestions on how to make it better so I can learn and do better next time.
This isn’t the same as coddling or inflating ego. But it’s important to celebrate your team’s strengths! It’s much easier for me to perform at my best when I know what I’m doing well. If the only feedback I receive is about what I’m doing wrong (especially if it’s not presented in a way to help me learn and grow from those weaknesses), I start to shut down because it feels like I’m not doing anything right. How are you supposed to try if your perception is that every attempt is a failure? Every attempt has a positive, even if it’s just “completed when asked for.” It’s important to reinforce what’s being done right so colleagues can do more of what’s right as they learn to improve on what’s wrong.
Clear guidelines and expectations.
This one should (hopefully) be pretty obvious, but being given clear guidelines and expectations for my work is critical for me to succeed in a work environment. If I don’t know my deadlines or have a clear understanding of the goal of the piece, I tend to freeze and not know how to move forward. It can be difficult for me to ask questions if I am afraid of being shot down or told I’m wrong, and if I don’t get clear guidelines in that kind of environment it’s unlikely I’ll feel comfortable seeking clarification. Once I know what’s expected of me, I love to run with it and can work independently to get it done — but I need to know what you want first!
Teamwork and collaboration.
This goes along with feedback and dialogue. I thrive in settings that are team-centric and value collaboration. I know that my abilities are not the end-all, be-all for any project, so having a culture that focused on teamwork to get projects done is incredibly important. I like having people I can bounce ideas off of or consult with if I’m struggling with an aspect of a project. Everyone experiences writer’s/designer’s/editor’s block, so having a team to turn to helps prevent (or at least minimize) feelings of frustration, demoralization, or unproductivity. Plus, I like being part of a group working toward a shared success versus succeeding on my own.
I’m not saying your supervisor or colleagues have to be your best friends (but if they are, great!), but I think compassion is an incredibly undervalued trait when it comes to approaching professional situations. Remembering that your coworkers, supervisors, clients, and vendors are humans is sometimes the most important component of diffusing conflict or seeking solutions. When we forget to treat others as people with kindness and understanding, we send a message that they are less important than our deadline/our project/our goal/ourselves. When people don’t feel valued, they don’t perform well. Plain and simple. If nothing else, we can always choose to be kind — yes, even when we are giving criticism or feedback.
Remember — the workplace is the relationship you spend the most time in.
I spend more time with my coworkers than I do Boyfriend, and we live together (Granted, he’s an ER vet on an opposite schedule to me most of the time…but still! We spend a lot of time at work). I have failed to recognize the red flags of toxic work environments in large part because I haven’t looked at them for what they are — relationships. Relationships we spend a hell of a lot of time in!
Once I realized that my skills in identifying relationship red flags were just as valuable in my professional life, I did the same thing for the workplace that I did for a romantic partner: I made a list of what I was looking for and used that to guide my job seeking process. I’m happy to report that, so far, my current job situation matches up with everything I am looking for — and, just like when I started dating Boyfriend, the effects of a positive relationship with my work environment have been exponentially healing. It’s easier for me to come out of those impostor syndrome moments because I have the support of a team and leader who recognize my strengths and allow me to do my best work. I’ve also made a point to more clearly articulate my needs as they arise to make sure I stay on the same page with my colleagues as much as possible.
We date people to find the right fit before committing to a life partner (if that’s your style, that is!) — we should allow ourselves the same opportunity to “date” our workplaces until we find what the best dynamic is for us. Your workplace checklist might be different from mine, and that’s why different careers, office environments, and professionals exist. Understanding your needs from a work environment is just as important as understanding theirs when you’re applying to, interviewing for, and working with a company. It’s okay to stand up for what you need and modify or exit a situation if you aren’t getting it. No one benefits from an employee faced with a situation that doesn’t meet their needs.
What are your experiences with work environments that just weren’t the right fit? What did you learn from those experiences, and what do you look for in your workplace? Let me know in the comments!